Talented Kerala wicketkeeper-batsman Sanju Samson made heads turn with a few cool-headed performances for Rajasthan Royals in the sixth season of the IPL, following a fine Ranji Trophy season for his home state. At the age of 16, Samson had become the youngest cricketer to represent Kerala in first-class cricket and has evolved into a hero for his team and state.
Samson made his first-class debut against Vidarbha in 2011 and after scoring 377 runs at a healthy average of 41.88 in the 2012-13 Ranji season and 222 in the Vijay Hazare Trophy he was picked by Rajasthan for IPL 6. The 18-year-old left a mark, in particular with a 41-ball 63 in a chase of 171 against RCB and a 36-ball 40 on a slow track against KKR. There were other crucial cameos as well as some tidy work behind the stumps.
Cricketnext caught up with the young sensation and got his views on the IPL 6 experience, the Under-19 series in Sri Lanka and playing under Rahul Dravid. Excerpts...
You are in the India A squad, which is a big step forward. Your thoughts?
I am all set to face New Zealand. I am excited to don the Team India jersey. I have spent a lot of time in the nets and with my seniors. They are ready to give me tips at any point of time. I am in good touch though and working hard to produce some good results for my team. New Zealand are a good side with a number of good pacers but we are prepared for them. Recently, I played in the Buchi Babu tournament and scored good runs for Kerala too. We have a very good team, hull of energy and positive intent.
Recently you played in Sri Lanka for the U-19 side. What was that like?
Playing in Sri Lanka was altogether a different experience. I played three one-dayers and two youth Tests and the conditions were really different there. The Sri Lankan pacers and spinners were a talented lot with lot of variations. I scored three half-centuries in the series, 70 in the first Test and then 89 in the second. Both the Tests were drawn but we won the one-day series.
What has been your interaction with you India A captain, Unmukt Chand?
This will be the first time I will be playing under Unmukt. He is a nice person and helpful. He led India to victory at the 2012 U-19 World Cup and I have seen his game. He is a very good player especially under pressure. I will try to learn a lot from him in the limited-overs series against New Zealand.
This was your second IPL season and you played tremendously...
Last year, I was included in the Kolkata Knight Riders squad under the captaincy of Gautam Gambhir, but didn't get a chance to play. This time representing Rajasthan Royals was an amazing experience. Though I didn't play the first four games, after getting a chance I ended up playing 11 games for Rajasthan and scored 206 runs at an average of almost 26. The best thing about the IPL is that it is a stage where a youngster and experienced stars can all perform together. I have learnt a lot from the tournament. It also helped me improve my game. I met different people and shared different experiences.
Rahul Dravid is your idol. How was the experience playing under him?
It was a dream come true to play under him. I never thought I will be playing with him someday. The days I spent with Rajasthan Royals will always be memorable. I had got a lot of support from him. I didn't play the first four matches, but later on tried to score good runs for the team after my inclusion. It was my first IPL experience, as I didn't get a chance last year. The atmosphere in the Rajasthan camp was very good, the best I have seen. Every player gets the push to perform from seniors. All the seniors were so encouraging. Even during the selection, Rahul sir used to come to me and gave me a lot of tips to boost my confidence. He constantly insisted that I play my natural game and not lose my cool under pressure. His tips will always be there in my mind and will try to apply in every game that I will play in the future.
Despite having Dishant Yagnik as a wicketkeeper, Dravid gave you chance to don the 'keeping gloves. Your thoughts?
As I told you I didn't play the first four games and Dishant bhai was playing as a wicketkeeper-batsman. After my inclusion for two games for the team, Rahul sir asked me to don the 'keeping gloves. He showed full confidence in me and that was enough for me. He knew that I play as a wicketkeeper-batsman for Kerala so he gave me a chance. I was prepared and did my best. After the game he told me "Good work buddy, keep it up".
You became the youngest batsman to score a fifty in IPL and were named Man of the Match.
(Laughs) Honestly I wasn't aware of this fact. I just played my natural game. Yes, it was my first and only Man-of-the-Match award. I scored 63 off 41 balls, my highest score in T20s. I was delighted because it came against a big and a strong team, Royal Challengers Bangalore. It was just my second match of IPL 6 and we defeated them by four wickets. When I received the award then I got to know that I am the youngest batsman in the IPL history to score a fifty. My team-mates and seniors congratulated me. After that award, I got the Nayi Soch Award thrice in the tournament.
What's the best compliment that you got from your seniors?
After that MOM award, I was sitting in the dressing room when Rahul sir came to me and gifted me a cricket bat. I was too delighted to accept such a gift from my idol. He said: "Sanju, you have a fearless batting style. You play really well. Just be focused and play your natural game. All the best." This compliment and the gift will always remain with me.
How about playing under different players from around the world?
Rajasthan Royals is a family for me. I would say this is the greatest team I have ever played for in my life. If I am selected next year too, then I would love to represent Rajasthan Royals. We had a great team. The players whom I have seen on television and whose batting styles I modelled my game on were playing at the same platform where I was. Shane Watson, James Faulkner, Owais Shah, Samuel Badree and Shaun Tait were awesome. We found Watson very aggressive but he is not in reality. He is very simple and focused. He believes in point-to-point conversation. After the MOM award against RCB, he came to me and said "Dude, you really played well". As far as Owais bhai is concerned, he as a jovial personality and is very funny and entertaining. I have learnt a lot from James Faulkner as well. He is a brilliant allrounder.
Do you see yourself playing for India?
I love to stay in the present and want to focus on that. My motto is 'work hard' and it always pays. I will surely get opportunities in the future if I perform well. I want to take it one step at a time. For achieving something, performance is very important.